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Nomar Mazara, Tanner Roark get fresh starts



Catching up on a few leftover moves from this week’s winter meetings as I fly home …

• The Rangers finally tired of waiting for Nomar Mazara, to whom they gave $5 million when they signed him as a 16-year-old in 2011, to convert his promise into production, trading him to the Chicago White Sox for fringe prospect Steele Walker. Mazara has a .261/.320/.435 line across four full years in the majors, making him well below average for a corner outfielder in both OBP and power, with an execrable .231/.272/.361 career line against lefties. He doesn’t swing and miss often, but he also swings at too many pitches outside or around the perimeter of the strike zone, pitches he can foul off or put in play but can’t hit hard — and he really doesn’t make enough hard contact for a corner outfielder who’s a below-average defender. I thought Mazara would be a better hitter than this, but after four years there’s been zero improvement in his approach at the plate; perhaps the change of scenery and coaching staffs will help.

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MLB Power Rankings — The biggest 2020 surprise on all 30 teams



We’re just two weeks from the MLB playoffs and the 2020 version promises to be full of thrills. Not only do we have an expanded 16-team format that should bring a March Madness feel to the best-of-three first round, we’ve got some exciting teams in the mix that we haven’t seen in October in quite some time.

The San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox both feature some of the game’s top young stars and neither has been in the playoffs in more than a decade. Add the Toronto Blue Jays, plus potential surprise playoff teams in the San Francisco Giants and Miami Marlins, and it’s clear the postseason will have a fresh look in more ways than one.

Our new Power Rankings reflect this, as the Padres and White Sox surge into our top five, with the Jays, Giants and Marlins also creeping up.

In keeping with the surprising times, David Schoenfield weighs in with his biggest surprise about each team as part of the rankings.

Previous: Preseason | Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6

Record: 33-14
Playoff probability: 100%
Week 6 ranking: 1

They’ve been dominant even though Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Joc Pederson have fallen way off from their 2019 numbers. That does suggest a potential issue about facing lefties in the postseason — except Max Fried is really the only good lefty starter in the NL this year aside from Clayton Kershaw, and Fried is injured right now.

ICYMI: How A.J. and Kate Pollack faced their daughter’s premature birth

Record: 30-17
Playoff probability: 100%
Week 6 ranking: 2

First place? Not a surprise. First place with a pitching staff ravaged by injuries and solid-but-not-dominant work from Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell? Surprising. No team is better at finding and producing pitching depth than the Rays.

ICYMI: Rays make history with all-lefty lineup

Record: 31-17
Playoff probability: 100%
Week 6 ranking: 6

Veterans Eric Hosmer (138 OPS+ after averaging 97 over his first two years in San Diego) and Wil Myers (159 OPS+ after a 95 in 2019) have had huge seasons, but we have to give the nod to Jake Cronenworth, who seems to be the likely NL Rookie of the Year. Not bad for a guy who was the extra body in the Tommy Pham trade.

ICYMI: Francisco Lindor Jr. and MLB’s 100 most entertaining players

Record: 29-17
Playoff probability: 100%
Week 6 ranking: 3

It’s not that Oakland’s bullpen was supposed to be bad — it was seventh in the majors in ERA in 2019 — but it has carried the A’s to first place with an MLB-best 2.06 ERA. None of their top seven relievers has an ERA over 3.00 and Jake Diekman has yet to allow a run in 16 innings.

ICYMI: How Liam Hendriks channeled his inner dragon

Record: 30-16
Playoff probability: 100%
Week 6 ranking: 9

OK, Luis Robert came with a lot of hype as one of the top prospects in the majors, but potential MVP? Nobody expected that. Yet if the vote were held today he might finish highest among AL position players (Cleveland starter Shane Bieber is probably the favorite). Teammates Jose Abreu and Tim Anderson — contending for a second straight batting title (now that’s a surprise) — are up there as well.

ICYMI: Where does Luis Robert rank among MLB’s most entertaining players?

Record: 30-18
Playoff probability: 100%
Week 6 ranking: 5

Kenta Maeda, who was a solid No. 3-starter type with the Dodgers, has been far better than that with Minnesota, going 5-1 with a 2.43 ERA, a .158 average allowed and 63 K’s in 55⅔ innings. He just threw seven scoreless innings on Friday to outduel Shane Bieber.

Record: 26-21
Playoff probability: 98.8%
Week 6 ranking: 4

Well, Shane Bieber has been completely absurd, averaging 14.2 K’s per nine innings with a 41.3% strikeout rate. But let’s give a shoutout to Zach Plesac, who had a solid rookie year in 2019, although with middling peripheral numbers. He has increased his strikeout rate from 6.8 per nine to 8.6 while lowering his walks from 3.1 to 0.7. It’s just six outings, but maybe Cleveland has another Bieber in the works.

Record: 28-19
Playoff probability: 100%
Week 6 ranking: 8

Thanks to their 29-run outburst, the Braves lead the majors in runs per game. They rolled the dice on Marcell Ozuna after two mediocre seasons in St. Louis, but he has put up monster numbers on par with what he did with the Marlins in 2017. Then there’s Adam Duvall, a backup at the start of the season who now ranks among the NL home run leaders thanks to two three-homer games.

ICYMI: The amazing numbers behind the Braves’ 29-run outburst

Record: 26-21
Playoff probability: 99.6%
Week 6 ranking: 7

With 16 home runs, Luke Voit has a chance to top his 2019 total of 21 — in well less than half as many plate appearances. We’ve seen Voit locked in like this before — his 39-game run in 2018 — but he’s changed his approach a bit, swinging more aggressively early in the count, pulling the ball more and swinging and missing less often.

ICYMI: Stanton, Judge could be back in lineup by weekend

Record: 28-20
Playoff probability: 100%
Week 6 ranking: 11

No, it’s not Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez leading the Cubs’ offense, but Ian Happ and Jason Heyward, just like the doctor drew it up. (Seriously, what is wrong with Baez? Somehow he’s striking out more and walking less than ever. Control the zone, friends, control the zone.)

ICYMI: Baez riled by ban on in-game video

Record: 23-24
Playoff probability: 95.7%
Week 6 ranking: 10

We’ve been waiting for Kyle Tucker to finally get an opportunity to play on a regular basis and he got it when Yordan Alvarez missed time with COVID and then went down with an injury. Tucker leads the majors in triples and ranks among AL leaders in RBIs while hitting .383 with runners in scoring position.

ICYMI: Astros-Dodgers about more than just bad blood

Record: 26-20
Playoff probability: 98.2%
Week 6 ranking: 13

Before landing on the IL with a rib injury, Teoscar Hernandez had been one of the top power hitters in the league, hitting .308 with 14 home runs in 39 games. His Statcast numbers support the power numbers: 98th percentile in hard-hit rate and 99th percentile in expected slugging. The whiffs are high, but he hits the ball with authority.

ICYMI: Bo Bichette’s return should give Jays big boost

Record: 23-22
Playoff probability: 84.9%
Week 6 ranking: 12

Nobody really stands out as a surprise, so let’s instead go with this: The Phillies somehow are in second place and hovering above .500 despite an absolutely wretched bullpen — last in the majors with a 7.19 ERA. I’d say it’s impossible to be a playoff team or win a World Series with a bullpen that bad, except we just saw the Nationals win the World Series last year despite the worst bullpen ERA in the majors (5.66).

ICYMI: Handicapping the teams bidding for the last NL playoff spot

Record: 20-20
Playoff probability: 77.6%
Week 6 ranking: 14

Adam Wainwright is 38, last posted an adjusted ERA better than league average in 2014 (not counting an injury-shortened 2015) and even contemplated retirement after 2019. He’s 4-1 with a 2.91 ERA and he leads all starters in averaging 6⅔ innings per game. It’s not exactly a comeback, but it’s nice to see him remind us that he was once one of the best in the game.

Record: 23-24
Playoff probability: 57.6%
Week 6 ranking: 19

Mike Yastrzemski, MVP? Donovan Solano, batting champ? Both are possibilities and we haven’t even mentioned Brandon Belt (OPS over 1.000), Alex Dickerson (138 OPS+), Wilmer Flores (138 OPS+) and even better production from old guys Brandon Crawford and Evan Longoria. Giants position players ranked fifth in the majors in FanGraphs WAR heading into Saturday compared to 25th in 2019.

Record: 21-26
Playoff probability: 26.5%
Week 6 ranking: 16

Dominic Smith is the easy answer here thanks to his impressive triple-slash line and big RBI total, but raise your hand if you thought Robinson Cano might have been nearing the end after hitting a lackluster .256 last season. He’s hitting well above .300 and, most impressively, is squaring up the ball much better than last season, with advanced metrics that support his raw numbers.

ICYMI: Can the Mets sneak into the playoff field?

Record: 21-26
Playoff probability: 24.6%
Week 6 ranking: 15

Maybe the surprise here is the rotation has been as good as hoped for — seventh in the majors in ERA, second in strikeout rate, second in home run rate — and yet the Reds are still looking up at the playoff teams. The Reds were supposed to have depth among their position players but it hasn’t played out that way.

Record: 20-24
Playoff probability: 41.0%
Week 6 ranking: 18

Corbin Burnes was a big prospect back in 2018 and debuted in the majors with a 7-0 record and 2.61 ERA in 38 innings out of the bullpen. But he got hammered in 2019 — 8.82 ERA, 17 HRs in 49 innings — and yet he suddenly looks like a top-of-the-rotation starter, with a 1.99 ERA and just 22 hits allowed in 45⅓ innings. He’s added a cutter that has taken his game to a new level and batters are hitting .156 against it.

Record: 23-21
Playoff probability: 70.5%
Week 6 ranking: 21

Yeah, maybe that J.T. Realmuto trade will work out after all. Hard-throwing Sixto Sanchez, possessor of 100 mph heat, is living up to the hype with an impressive first five MLB starts. He has a five-pitch arsenal and has walked just five batters in 32 innings, but his changeup has been a special pitch, helping to stifle left-handed batters.

Record: 21-25
Playoff probability: 16.2%
Week 6 ranking: 17

Daniel Bard may be the biggest surprise of the season. The former Red Sox reliever last pitched in the majors in 2013 and the last time we saw him pitch in the minors in 2017 he walked 24 batters in 9⅓ innings. He retired. Now he’s back, throwing strikes and throwing again in the upper 90s, and he’s the Rockies’ closer.

Record: 17-28
Playoff probability: 1.1%
Week 6 ranking: 20

If we told you Juan Soto and Trea Turner were two of the best hitters in the league, you might think, “OK, so the Nationals have survived the loss of Anthony Rendon and are battling for the division lead.” Umm, nope. The rest of the lineup has struggled, Stephen Strasburg got injured and the back of the rotation has been a mess. There will be no title defense in October.

ICYMI: Juan Soto’s entertainment value hard to match

Record: 20-26
Playoff probability: 0.5%
Week 6 ranking: 25

He’s probably out for the season after straining his oblique, but the O’s had to love what they saw from Anthony Santander in his 37 games. The number that stands out: 25 extra-base hits. That’s a rate of 101 over 150 games! The extra pop also came with improved strikeout and walk rates.

Record: 20-26
Playoff probability: 0.9%
Week 6 ranking: 22

Jeimer Candelario did not have a good 2019 in his second season in the majors, hitting .203/.306/.377. It didn’t really make sense to move a weak-hitting third baseman to first base, but that’s what the Tigers did, and Candelario is hitting above .300 with 25-homer pop over a full season.

Record: 20-28
Playoff probability: 2.3%
Week 6 ranking: 24

It has been another disappointing season for the Angels — even though Dylan Bundy (5-2, 2.48 ERA, 2.66 FIP) and Andrew Heaney (3-3, 4.04 ERA, 2.95 FIP) have been very good. But the back of the rotation? No wins. A big fat zero from three-fifths of your starters, with an ERA over 6.00. Joe Maddon must be wondering what he got himself into.

ICYMI: What it was like to face Mike Trout in high school

Record: 17-31
Playoff probability: 0.0%
Week 6 ranking: 23

Zac Gallen is really good, so there’s that. But he showed signs of this as a rookie last year, so he shouldn’t be viewed as a big surprise. Otherwise? Not really much to say. It’s been bad in the desert. Skeptics worried about Madison Bumgarner‘s road ERA the previous two seasons and he’s 0-4 with a 7.52 ERA and 11 home runs in 26⅓ innings. Which … makes us sad. Pitch better, MadBum.

Record: 20-28
Playoff probability: 0.2%
Week 6 ranking: 26

The biggest surprise was probably reliever Trevor Rosenthal — and the Royals smartly turned his 13 decent innings into a solid prospect in outfielder Edward Olivares, who had a nice first week with the Royals after being dealt by the Padres. There’s probably no star potential, but for now he’s their best bet to play center field in 2021.

Record: 21-25
Playoff probability: 3.6%
Week 6 ranking: 29

Kyle Lewis was a first-round pick, but battled injuries in the minors and his numbers at Double-A in 2019 weren’t impressive. He had a good September call-up last year, albeit it with a poor strikeout-to-walk ratio, so there were questions he had to answer. He has dramatically improved his walk rate, has nine home runs and has played a solid center field (although right field probably is his long-term position when Jarred Kelenic arrives next year).

Record: 17-31
Playoff probability: 0.0%
Week 6 ranking: 28

Can we do a bad surprise? Against the rules? OK, Mitch Moreland. We’ll mention that he was hitting .328/.430/.746 before he was traded to San Diego. That’s the best cameo for the Red Sox since Ted Williams hit .407/.509/.901 in 37 games in 1953.

Record: 17-30
Playoff probability: 0.1%
Week 6 ranking: 27

Lance Lynn has followed up his impressive 2019 season with another terrific campaign and you really have to consider him a top-10 starter in the game, don’t you?

Record: 14-30
Playoff probability: 0.0%
Week 6 ranking: 30

What do you say here? The Pirates are building around Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman. Bell’s OPS is about 300 points lower than it was last year. Reynolds hit .314 as a rookie and is now under .200. Newman hit .308 as a rookie and is now hitting under .250 and has been getting more reps at second base than shortstop. So, umm … man, Roberto Clemente was something else.

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Tampa Bay Rays’ Ji-Man Choi expected to miss at least 2-3 weeks with hamstring injury



Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi is expected to be out at least two to three weeks with a strained left hamstring, with manager Kevin Cash saying it would take a “miraculous recovery” for him to be ready for the playoffs.

Choi, who suffered the Grade 1 hamstring injury while scoring Saturday night, is hitting .230 with three home runs and 16 RBIs in 42 games this season.

“Ji-Man brings a lot of energy,” Cash told reporters before Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox. “He’s a good teammate, a great teammate. We all felt like he was starting to have some better at-bats and get going. So he’ll be missed for sure.”

The Rays (30-17) lead the American League East by 3½ games over the Toronto Blue Jays.

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Chicago Cubs’ Alec Mills went from being a college walk-on to throwing a no-hitter



CHICAGO — You won’t confuse Chicago Cubs right-hander Alec Mills with any of the flamethrowers in baseball, but perhaps you’ve seen his teammate — and 2016 ERA champ — Kyle Hendricks pitch. Mills is called a “baby Hendricks,” and Hendricks is called a “baby Maddux” — a reference, of course, to Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.

The point is that these guys don’t throw hard, but they still have success. And now Mills has done something neither of those other pitchers can claim: He has thrown a no-hitter.

Mills’ 114-pitch gem against the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday was a work of art, which is what any great game thrown by a soft-tossing hurler is called. He struck out only five batters, but his array of curveballs kept the Brewers off-balance just enough, and the former 22nd-round pick of the Kansas City Royals put his name in the history books.

“I’m very overwhelmed.” Mills said after the 12-0 win. “Obviously, a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing. I’ll always remember it.”

He’ll also remember his journey. Mills grew up in Tennessee and was a walk-on on at the University of Tennessee at Martin before he was drafted in 2012. He rose steadily in the minors, but having Tommy John surgery early in his career proved to be an obstacle.

“That’s a big bump in the road,” Mills said. “Mentally, it’s tough to get over.”

Spending parts of eight years in the minors was a journey itself, but Mills finally established himself with the Cubs after being designated for assignment by the Royals in 2017. Even then, he had to work his way onto the roster and into the rotation, filling a role when others failed or got hurt. Sunday was just his 15th career start.

“The one thing that stands out to me about Alec is that no matter what situation I’ve put him in this year, he’s answered the expectations we’ve had for him,” Cubs manager David Ross said.

After a dip in his performance earlier this month, Mills recovered in remarkable fashion, throwing the 16th no-hitter in franchise history. He did it the same way he moved up the rungs of the baseball ladder: methodically. On Sunday, he threw 62% fastballs, 20% curveballs and 12% changeups. It was nothing fancy and certainly nothing hard. His fastest pitch clocked in at 91 mph. Mills induced just five swing-and-misses, the fewest in a solo no-hitter since Dallas Braden’s perfect game for the Athletics in 2010.

The mild-mannered, goggles-wearing Mills was asked if he ever had a low point in his career, when he thought he might not make it. He shook his head.

“I’ve always thought of things on the brighter side,” he said. “I stepped up in the minors. Never was really stuck anywhere.”

With the Cubs entrenched at the top of the NL Central, Mills might be “stuck” in the rotation come October. Only a few days ago, the Cubs weren’t sure if they had more than two options to start a playoff game. After a Jon Lester gem on Friday and a stellar performance by Hendricks on Saturday, the Cubs might have more than enough pitching, with Mills staking his claim to a postseason start as well as the history books.

His manager, a journeyman himself, can appreciate where Mills has come from.

“Just a proud parent moment,” Ross said. “You see the adversity somebody has been through. To get an opportunity and make the most of it is really rewarding from my seat.”

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